Take Away That Bauble 4/7: The Display of War Ordnance in Walsall 1850 – 1940.


The Great War

Walsall continued to expand: it absorbed parts of Rushall in 1876, 1890 and parts of Walsall Rural District Council in 1931,[1] and also saw increased building development as the population increased from 87,464 in 1901 to 103,059 in 1931.[2] The economy remained mixed, with the leather, metal and textile manufacturers producing some military goods,[3] although the heavy mining industries had all but disappeared by 1914.[4] School attendance in Walsall became compulsory in 1872, which meant that by 1918 children between five and fourteen were in education and literacy levels had been considerably raised.[5] In the wake of the Great War there was considerable slum-clearance within Walsall, reflecting the town’s predominantly working-class status.[6]

Politically, further electoral reform brought the rural counties in-line with the 1867 legislation. Democracy arrived with the Representation of the People’s Act of 1918 and 1928. Parliamentary representation was still predominantly Liberal,[7] as was the Town Council, with some Conservative representation. Labour councillors appeared from 1913, [8] the party then ‘greatly strengthened its representation in the years between the two World Wars, leading Conservatives and Liberals to develop an anti-Labour alliance’.[9]

Political, educational and social reform, with the rise of Trade Unions and the expansion of the civilian police force,[10] all contributed to the general discontinuance of military involvement during civil unrest. Further, the army underwent a transformation between 1868 and 1881 through the Cardwell and Childers Reforms,[11] which began to professionalise the army by abolishing the purchasing of commissions, draconian punishments, enforced enlistments of felons, allowing shorter attestations, and adopting the camouflaged khaki uniform. Despite this, the army still met defeats, as Khartoum, Majuba Hill and Spion Kop show.[12]

The structure was also transformed: regiments, regular and volunteer, would be more integrated with their regions so the 38th Foot became 1 Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment and the Walsall Volunteer Rifle Corps,[13] integrated more with the regulars in 1881, became part of the 2 Volunteer Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment.[14] The Territorial Army was formed in 1908 and pulled together the surviving militia and volunteer reserves into a government funded body. The Walsall volunteers would eventually become part of the 5 Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment, and linked to some of the captured guns acquired by the town.

Richard Holmes’ ‘ambivalent’ observation – as well as the distinction between home and war service – still seemed to remain despite these changes. Holmes’ assertions are supported by Rudyard Kipling’s poem Tommy, which captures the diametrically opposed views held of the British soldier depending on if the country was at war: Tommy is despised by the civilian world, but becomes ‘Mister Atkins’ when ‘the troopship’s on the tide’.[15]

The same suspicion is evident, even during the Great War, in places like Walsall. While local soldier’s deaths were recorded in the newspapers,[16] as it was close to the training camps on Cannock Chase, the town was a target for bored soldiers escaping an oppressive military training regime. Trainees appeared at the Walsall Magistrate Court charged with both drunkenness and absconding from service.[17]

The army’s view of itself remained ‘ambivalent’. The army changed in the respect that Douglas Haig no longer referred to his men as ‘scum’,[18] yet the army (regulars and reservists) still heavily reflected social status in its composition at the outbreak of the war although,[19] as the conflict wore on, promotion was achievable to officer status by merit.[20]

How the non-commissioned officers, junior and senior commissioned officers viewed themselves and each other is problematical, as individuality gets lost within typecasts, war disillusionment, politics and notoriety: Siegfried Sassoon was a junior officer respected by his men, middle-class although he flirted with socialism, a pacifist yet decorated hero and a published poet during the war.[21] His poems often attack senior officers and the conduct of the war while portraying Tommy as a victim.[22] Sassoon’s attack on senior officers is understandable considering they feuded amongst themselves,[23] but does not take into account any recognition of brilliant leadership,[24] or in Walsall that ‘large numbers of people availed themselves’ in October 1916 to view a full-length painting of Field Marshall Lord Kitchener after his death the previous June.[25] Later, Field Marshall Haig was instrumental in the establishment of the British Legion in 1921 and the poppy appeals for ex-servicemen,[26] and that Edinburgh streets were lined with people for his funeral cortege in 1928.[27] Nothing can be that neatly compartmentalised.

If the view of the living soldier remained ‘ambivalent’, that of the fallen soldier did not: during nineteenth century warfare the rank and file were tipped into communal graves, though officers may be buried separately and even repatriated if close-by.[28] The Boer War (1899-1902) saw the first attempt to bury individual soldiers, record their graves, and to maintain them.[29] The Great War would take this further, with the formation of the Imperial War Graves Commission in 1917.

The relocated Willenhall plaques to those of the parish that served and those that died in the Boer War. Photograph: P Ford.

In this country, historically, memorials tended to be raised to campaigns, regiments and officers.[30] There were scattered parish memorials to the rank and file,[31] or plaques that mention service.[32] The Boer War really marks not so much changing, as these were still commemorated, but a developing remembrance culture as, for the first time, en masse but not uniformly, memorials were erected by inhabitants to soldiers, of whatever rank, that served and died. Birmingham, Walsall and Willenhall erected such memorials.[33]

Concluding, Walsall remained Liberal, although the Labour and Conservative parties were having more influence. The Borough grew and developed to house increasing numbers of railway workers and Council employees, for example, and while it lost its heavy industry it retained its diverse trades. Education standards rose, so by the Boer War the army was a literate one, as were a public that achieved full enfranchisement in 1928. The town provided regulars for the South Staffordshire Regiment, and raised a contingent for the Volunteers (becoming a Battalion in 1914), although it no longer took a role in policing. The town raised a memorial to its Boer War dead, located in the Town Hall as opposed to a central town feature, yet the military at home were still viewed with suspicion.

[1] Currie, C., Greenslade, M. & Johnson, D. 2002. p217

[2] The West Bromwich Road and Whitehall School, for example, comprising of working-class housing: see https://wyrleyblog.wordpress.com/walsall/whitehall-infant-school-1890s-1923/whitehall-infant-school-part-1-founding-1899/

[3] Matthew Harvey (leather) employed six-hundred at its Bath Street factory alone, and over three thousand workers were in clothing companies like Shannon’s in 1916. See: Currie, Greenslade & Johnson. 2002. pp 204-205.

[4] Currie, C., Greenslade, M. & Johnson, D. 2002. pp 189-192.

[5] The school leaving age had risen slowly with a series of Acts of Parliament from 1870 to 1918 (enacted in 1921), provision was also made for post-compulsory students.

[6] Currie, C., Greenslade, M. & Johnson, D. 2002. p149.

[7] There had been Conservative representation in the 1890s and between 1924 and 1929, as well as Labour representation between 1929 and 1931. The Great War and the 1918-1922 period was technically a coalition, but Liberals were returned in Walsall.

[8] The Labour Party was founded in 1900, an amalgam of socialist groups.

[9] Currie, C., Greenslade, M. & Johnson, D. 2002. p217.

[10] Unions were legalised and gained the right to strike under the Trade Union Act, 1871 and the real emergence of the police country-wide was through the County and Borough Police Act, 1856

[11] Holmes, R. 2011. pp 373-383.

[12] These examples are from the Sudan War (1890s), First Boer War (1881) and Second Boer War (1899-1901)

[13] A national corps formed in response to rising tensions with France. The Corps comprised of around one hundred men under a Captain; members were likely again to be gentlemen, as they had to provide their own arms (at standard gauge) and uniforms (approved by the Lord-Lieutenant of the county). See: War Office circular, 12 May 1859. Available at https://web.archive.org/web/20060620111845/http://researchpress.co.uk/volunteers/official/woc12may59.htm

[14] Walsall Advertiser. 17 June 1893. Walsall Volunteers for Aldershot. p4.

[15] Rudyard Kipling’s Tommy. 1892. Available at: http://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/poems_tommy.htm

[16] As an example, Private Wilfred North’s death and obituaries reported in the Cannock Advertiser, April 1917. See: https://wyrleyblog.wordpress.com/wyrley-landywood/great-wyrleys-fallen-wwi/private-wilfred-north-finding-family/

[17] Jack Davill is an example

[18] French, then Haig were Chief of Imperial General Staff during the War

[19] Captain Clarence Hawkins, a Territorial, who appears as Cheslyn Hay’s only fallen officer, was the son of the local colliery owner. See: Staffordshire Advertiser. 6 October 1917. Captain Clarence Hawkins. p5.

[20] Lieutenant Theodore Bason, who appears as neighbouring Great Wyrley’s only fallen officer, had risen through the ranks. See: https://wyrleyblog.wordpress.com/wyrley-landywood/great-wyrleys-fallen-wwi/theodore-crescens-bason-the-oswestry-officer/comment-page-1/

[21] See: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/siegfried-sassoon

[22] Sassoon’s poem The General is perhaps the best example. See: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/57217/the-general-56d23a7de4d1c

[23] General Horace Smith-Dorrien clashed with Sir John French and was removed, despite his success.

[24] Smith-Dorrien’s action at the Battles of Mons and Le Cateau, for example.

[25] Walsall Observer. 14 October 1916. Kitchener Exhibition. p6.

[26] The Haig Fund

[27] British Pathe, 1928: https://www.britishpathe.com/video/funeral-of-earl-haig

[28] General Picton was repatriated after his death at Waterloo.

[29] Maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, although the men are not listed on its website.

[30] The Guards Crimean War memorial in London, or the incongruous obelisk to Colonel Burnaby and the Sudanese campaign that stands taller than the adjacent nave of Birmingham Cathedral, are examples.

[31] A somewhat smaller obelisk stands in Beeston Church (Nottinghamshire) to four soldiers that perished in the Crimea from the parish, having been raised by public subscription.

[32] Sergeant William Purvis had a plaque unveiled in Saint Matthews Church, Walsall, upon his death in 1899, commemorating his military service and presence at the Charge of the Light Brigade.

[33] These three local examples are all different in nature: Birmingham was a stone sculpture with name panels located in a public park, Walsall was a wood panel located inside the Town Hall, while Willenhall (figure eight) were metal plaques originally placed on the public cemetery gates.

Walsall: A Typical Experience of the Great War?

Each person’s war experience would be different, so there was no universal view of the war either before, during or after it. This section seeks to show Walsall’s ambivalence towards the war. Just how well the general public, with its differing classes, cognitive levels, political opinions and sufficient interest to care, would have understood the casus belli is unknowable. Irrespective, there was hostility to the war, which was not just based on pacifism: it may not be over the war, but the conducting of it (the Crimea was a good example of that); a lack of understanding, Queen Mary (of Teck) was not against the war as such, only that it was over ‘tiresome little Serbia’;[1] too much understanding, the Bank of England implored the government to keep Britain out of the Great War on economic grounds and later purchased war bonds out of its own reserves to bolster the economy;[2] or politics, international socialism was against the war but in the case of the British Labour party, as with the Suffrage movement and the Liberal Manchester Guardian newspaper, once war was declared, however grudgingly, they supported the war effort.[3]

The fact there was criticism of the conflict is borne out locally as a recruitment drive at one Walsall football match saw Richard Cooper, Walsall Member of Parliament, openly acknowledge in a speech that men in the crowd: ‘might have some criticism in their breast, but he reminded them… no matter what was said before the war, and no matter what was going to be said when it was over, there was going to be no carping criticisms to-day’.[4] The day Britain entered the war was likely the most united it (and Walsall) would be, at least in veneer if not in substance. As the war moved on that unity or commitment would fracture, not in the sense that people necessarily became anti-war, but that their own circumstances came first: for example, the Walsall carters striking, while at war, over improved pay.[5]

The general public’s understanding of actual war events predominantly came from the newspapers, cinema news and propaganda films, letters from the front, and repatriated soldiers.[6] The public understanding of the impact of the war came through its longevity: the forced conscription of men,[7] women entering the masculine workplace,[8] price-rises and then rationing,[9] air raids and blackouts,[10] exposure to the wounded,[11] separation anxiety,[12] mass bereavement and the expressing of that bereavement through obituary pages in newspapers and war shrines.[13]

The public understanding of warfare also changed: as the war progressed, and the need for new or better technology arose to break the stalemate, so the public were also introduced to new weaponry in one of several ways. First, direct experience, with artillery being moved to the front on trains or by road through towns or military aircraft passing overhead.[14] Second, by the surrogate experience, authentic action from the front-line through cinematography,[15] sanitised photographs in newspapers,[16] or post-cards.[17] Thirdly, the manipulative experience, in which British tanks were paraded through towns and cities in order to raise money for the war-effort. Fourthly, by indirect means, where men return with rasping lungs due to poison gas or horrifically burned due by flamethrowers.[18] Fifthly, the contrived experience, to parade captured ordnance out of context (the UC5 submarine) or recreate battle conditions (a British trench) in contrived situations.

Whitehall School, through its log book completed by headmistress Sarah Parker, is an example of Walsall’s war experience.[19] Sarah had been headmistress since the school opened in 1899, so she must have known some of men killed or wounded were boys she once taught. The opening of the war saw the Infant Department turned over for the billeting of soldiers, which continued until February 1915, creating spatial problems. On Empire Day, along with singing patriotic songs, the scholars collected money and items for sending parcels to ‘the brave soldiers and sailors now fighting for the Empire’; the language Sarah uses shows she was at least in sympathy with the soldiers. In the winter that year Sarah related a lack of sufficient heating to the continual illness throughout the school and, in the December, with acute staffing shortages, Sarah had a nervous breakdown.

January 1916 saw Walsall’s Zeppelin experience, and Sarah describes the ‘universal shock’ felt by the community. The raid was followed by terrible weather, with snow lasting a month, and with no fuel available to heat the school there was much absenteeism – Sarah laconically pointed out it is ‘retarding the progress of the school’. Infant teachers were utilised to distribute National Service forms and then collect them and in April 1917 there were two teachers for over three hundred pupils and Sarah despaired over the ‘utter impossibility’ of the situation.

Sarah Parker, Whitehall School and the overall Walsall experience of the German Zeppelin raid on 31 January and 1 February 1916, which left the town in ‘universal shock’. Acc 734/1/2: Walsall Local History Centre.

Freezing temperatures returned and March 1918 saw further closure for war-work, this time to distribute meat-rationing cards. The school was closed in May on account of a measles epidemic and in June for an influenza outbreak: teachers were expected to monitor the health of the pupils and such localised school closures were not uncommon. The top class, by October 1918, had had five teachers in four months. On 23 October, Ida Hubble joined the teaching staff at the age of sixteen – she would be teaching classes in excess of sixty pupils. When the armistice was signed the school had been closed for two months on account of the Spanish Flu epidemic.

Returning to 1916, it was a seminal year in British social history as it saw the making and screening of the landmark film, The Battle of the Somme. The film, intended to be a morale-booster, was released in London at the end of August. The Walsall Imperial screened it from 18 September, for one week. It ran four times a day (having a special screenings for the military and children) and was, according to the Walsall Observer, playing to ‘crowded houses’.[20] This five-reel film depicted the realities of war, and while in general it was popular, it is said to have reduced wounded servicemen to tears and one woman shouted ‘Oh! God, they’re dead’.[21] The film opened the cinema to a new middle-class audience and proved the power of cinema for propaganda purposes.[22] A second film, The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks, was screened in February 1917.[23]

How the film was received in Walsall is not recorded. It clearly was popular as it attracted crowded houses, and likely the ‘middle-class’ audience claimed, but whether they saw it as morale-boosting is a moot point. As with other areas, Walsall men were at the front and their families were shown men being killed (although fake-footage was used)[24] and buried – all of which must have been shocking – but Walsall had been bombed a few months before, so maybe the Hun were getting just rewards overrode the sight of fallen British troops.[25]

Despite experiences, such as those of Sarah Parker, and despite the deprivations and mass bereavement faced by the public, many soldiers at the front felt that the public could not ‘see the realities of war’.[26] There were attempts to inform the public through realistic experiences, however, it had to fail. In March and April 1916, the Daily Mail (in aid of the Red Cross) built a trench in London; the trench had dugouts, barbed wire and could be walked through to give a ‘real’ experience.[27] A similar experience occurred locally. On 21 September 1916 a fete and jumble sale were staged at the Hammerwich Cottage Hospital to raise funds. A model trench was constructed, with firing step, barbed wire entanglements, machine gun posts, bomb store and so forth, and wounded soldiers guided visitors through its features. One soldier at the hospital, whose comments were was reported in the Walsall Observer, highlights the problems with both these schemes: ‘it only wants this trench to be half-a-yard deep in slimy mud, with the rats running about, and the whizz-bangs and Johnsons dropping around, and the rifles and machine guns loosing off a fire, and some dead horses to give it a flavour, and then they might get an idea of what war is like’.[28] The soldier’s laboured point was responded to by the newspaper: [29] ‘But realism can be carried too far’ – the public needed to be reassured more than they needed the war experience.[30]

Many men volunteered at the outbreak of the war, but we have to be careful and not assume that everyone that volunteered did so out of patriotic fervour. Many did, but there was also social pressure from the start to enlist and call-out ‘slackers’. Reverend Price, from Cannock, was vociferous in this campaign and was reflected in the Cannock Advertiser. 19 September 1914. Cannock Library.

The same mixed emotions are true of the men that joined-up.[31] Many of those that attested locally in August 1914 did so through the want to fight, but some did so through bravado or peer pressure);[32] further pressure was added with recruitment drives at football matches and theatres,[33] men being shamed by ‘slacker’ campaigns,[34] or by ladies that handed out white feathers.[35] Ultimately, voluntary recruitment failed and conscription started in March 1916. The overall self-interest of people, again, we cannot assume it was outright hostility to the war, was shown by many people seeking an exemption from service due to home commitments (family or business for example) through tribunal appeals.[36]

While some soldiers found the war a curiously happy time, others struggled with the emotion that war brings.[37] Some men, like Private Walton, broke quickly and were institutionalised or self-destructed;[38] some were worn down (and were hospitalised), or got through the war but were emotionally changed.[39] The Mayor of Walsall claimed thirteen thousand Walsallians went to the Great War; [40] those that returned were as disparate in their military experiences as the public were on the home front, so ascribing veterans a single viewpoint is troublesome when it comes to reflecting on the conflict.

Walsall seemed, in conclusion, to be typical in that there was hostility to the war, and as the war dragged on the good will dried up and Walsall saw drunkenness and absenteeism, strikes and tribunal appeals. While it was a little more unusual in that it had suffered ‘universal shock’ from direct military action, the town would not be unique in creating war shrines and newspaper obituaries. Yet, through it all, the town turned-up in force to watch the Battle of the Somme and other war films and would meet Julian the tank enthusiastically. Ultimately, defining how the Walsall public, and the local soldiers that went to the war, actually felt about the war remains difficult. Private Davill, who had attempted to enlist several times, frequently absconded only to be found at home in Walsall. Davill was called a ‘disgrace to his regiment’ by the Mayor, but had no issues when on active service, later dying of wounds. He stands for the ever-changing emotions an individual goes through in times of stress.[41]

[1] See: http://www.quoteswave.com/authors/mary-of-teck

[2] See: https://www.bankofengland.co.uk/about/history

[3] See: https://www.britannica.com/biography/J-Keir-Hardie

[4] Walsall Observer. 17 October 1914. Recruiting at Football Matches. p8.

[5] Forty Walsall haulage firms were affected by a strike over pay rates in 1915. See: Walsall Observer. 15 May 1915. Walsall Carters’ Strike. p8.

[6] Letters by other ranks were censored (officers were expected to write appropriately). After the Times newspaper was censured in the Commons over its description of the Mons retreat, newspapers towed the state line, except when Sir John French whistle-blew over the lack of shells in 1915.

[7] Conscription Act, 21 January 1916, came into effect on 2 March 1916. Again, it was divisive: The Daily Mail had supported conscription, the Manchester Guardian opposed it.

[8] Walsall Council employed women tram drivers and police constables.

[9] The great barrister Edward Marshall Hall defended a Walsall food hoarder and secured his freedom in 1918: https://wyrleyblog.wordpress.com/walsall/edward-marshall-hall-and-the-case-of-the-walsall-food-hoarder-1918/

[10] Walsall suffered more injury and fatalities in the blackout than through the Zeppelin attack in 1916, see: https://wyrleyblog.wordpress.com/2017/01/23/robert-saunders-walsalls-blackout-in-world-war-one/

[11] Aldridge Manor was used as a hospital.

[12] Frances North lost her mother and daughter in an aeroplane crash in Walsall, she was expected to repay the separation allowance she had received in advance for her child. See: https://wyrleyblog.wordpress.com/walsall/tales-from-the-walsall-coroner/run-the-ryecroft-plane-crash-1917/

[13] Villages like Great Wyrley (unveiled February 1918) and towns like Walsall created Rolls of Honour (lists of those that went to war, not just fallen) as early as 1916. Also known as war shrines, they could represent just a single street. See: Walsall Observer. 23 September 1916. Roll of Honour War Shrines. p6.

[14] As mentioned, Walsall was raided by German Zeppelins and did experience British aeroplanes – one crashed in Walsall, killing two locals, in 1917.See: https://wyrleyblog.wordpress.com/walsall/tales-from-the-walsall-coroner/run-the-ryecroft-plane-crash-1917/

[15] These were shown in local cinemas in Walsall, like the Imperial. The Battle of the Somme film even played in village cinemas, like Cheslyn Hay. See: https://wyrleyblog.wordpress.com/walsall/the-walsall-imperial-1868-2014/the-walsall-imperial-2/

[16] See later illustration

[17] See: https://www.worldwar1postcards.com/sets-and-series-of-postcards.php

[18] The 5th Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment were present at Hooge, May 1915, where the Germans first used flamethrowers

[19] Acc 734/1/2 Whitehall School: Log Book, 1912-1945

[20] Walsall Observer. 23 September 1916. Imperial Picture House. p8.

[21] https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/how-the-battle-of-the-somme-was-filmed

[22] Reeves, N. 1986. Official British Film Propaganda During the First World War. Croom Helm: London. pp14-15

[23] Walsall Observer. 7 February 1917. Imperial Picture House. p7.

[24] See: https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/how-the-battle-of-the-somme-was-filmed

[25] The Coroner’s verdict on those killed in Walsall was ‘killed by bomb dropped from an enemy aircraft’, while the Wolverhampton Coroner added more hysterically, ‘wilful murder by the Kaiser and Crown Prince’.

[26] Leonard Ounsworth, whose testimony forms a part of the Imperial War Museum’s Voices From The First World War project. See: https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/voices-of-the-first-world-war-home-on-leave

[27] Wellington, J. 2017. Exhibiting War. pp 23-24.

[28] Walsall Observer. 23 September 1916. Hammerwich Hospital. p11. Whizzbangs and (Jack) Johnsons were among several nicknames for shells and types of shell.

[29] The soldier was representing his experience at its worst: he could equally have said, that for a greater part of his time, he was on route marches, training, bored doing fatigues, or drunk in an estaminet.

[30] Walsall Observer. 23 September 1916. Hammerwich Hospital. p11

[31] Gregory, A. 2014. The Last Great War. p33

[32] The Pals battalions were formed as a part of Kitchener’s Army (the first volunteers). Local men joined together: Birmingham raised three Pals battalions in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Walsall did not have a Pals battalion, but the 5th Staffordshire Regiment were raised in Walsall but not exclusively Walsallians.

[33] Walsall versus Hednesford, and Bloxwich Strollers versus Bourneville, were both successfully canvassed for recruits. Walsall Observer. 17 October 1914. Recruiting at Football Matches. p8.

[34] Reverend Price of Cannock attacked slackers from the pulpit, which was then reported in the press. See: Walsall Observer. 5 Sep 1914. War Items. p5.

[35] Walsall Observer. 10 October 1914. Army of Child Helpers. p3.

[36] A brewer succeeded in getting three month extension, as he was the only brewer left (others called-up) in the family business, from the Walsall Tribunal. See Walsall Observer. 20 January 1917. Local Tribunal. p6.

[37] See: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01td104

[38] See: https://wyrleyblog.wordpress.com/cannock/driven-to-despair-the-cannock-chase-camps-in-wwi/privates-walton-and-parnaby-driven-to-despair-part-4/

[39] See: Holden, W. 1998. Shell Shock: The Psychological Impact of War.

[40] Walsall Observer. 15 February 1919. Hun Guns on Tour. p3.

[41] See: https://wyrleyblog.wordpress.com/cannock/driven-to-despair-the-cannock-chase-camps-in-wwi/october-1915-january-1916-the-dark-side-of-the-cannock-chase-camps-part-2/